Album Review: Madi Diaz - History of A Feeling
I used to think about it a lot more, and I hadn’t, actually, in quite a while, but in thinking about History of a Feeling, the recently released new album from singer and songwriter Madi Diaz—and specifically considering her song “Crying in Public,” I recalled this kind of clumsy, kind of breathless lyric from an old David Poe song, “Childbearing.”
“People smile at a weeping child ‘cause they know their sadness is going to pass and the years will bring some real thing to cry about.”
To my knowledge, I do not think I have ever smiled1 at a crying child, and there are still moments when the piercing shriek of a child—one that is just beginning their howling and caterwauling, say, in a grocery store, where the sound reverberates throughout the poor acoustics—a shriek such as that still can make me shudder. But within the last few years, and especially within the last six or seven months, when I hear, and then see, a child crying in a public place, my first thought is usually not one of irritation, or of malice toward the parent for not snapping them up instantly and whisking them outside, or doing something to calm or quiet them.
My first thought is, I get it.
I get it, kid, I want to tell them. I wish I could cry like that, in public, as a 38 year old, and get away with it.
I get it, kid. Life is pain.
There are times when, as hard as it may think it is trying, the algorithmic placement2 of albums Spotify suggests to me doesn’t work out; but there are also times when something is suggested, or pushed my way, and my curiosity is peaked. This was the case when, through either the “New releases for you,” or “Recommended for today” scrolls on my mobile home page, I saw the simple, but unexplainably stark cover art to History of a Feeling—it’s a close up of Madi Diaz’s face, her large brown eyes staring right back at you, and her mouth completely obscured by both of her hands, which, upon closer inspection, are being used to finish zipping up the jacket she’s wearing.
And there is something interesting, and perhaps it’s unintentional, and perhaps I am simply, as I often do, reading too much into something or creating symbolism where there isn’t—but there is something interesting about Diaz’s mouth being totally hidden on the cover of this record, something that is juxtaposed against how unabashedly honest and open her lyricism on the album is capable of becoming.
There was something familiar about the cover art to History of a Feeling, after viewing a tiny thumbnail of it in my algorithm, and I realized it was because I more than likely saw the album mentioned on Pitchfork, when it was a one of the site’s featured reviews a few days after its release. The piece, like many of the site’s latter day reviews, gives it a commendable score (7.5 out of 10), but is short3—focusing a little on Diaz’s history, or backstory, and manages to say a few nice things about the record as a whole, while really refusing, or is unwilling, to spend a lot of time working through specific songs.
The thing about History of a Feeling is you don’t really need to know a lot about who Diaz is, or about the compelling backstory that ultimately lead to the creation of this album, for it to resonate with you, or to understand what kind of album it is going to be from the moment it begins.
The easy way to describe it is as a “breakup album,” but it runs a lot deeper than that, and is much more complicated.
The thing that I noticed at first about “Crying in Public,” during my initial listen, and before she reveals the conceit of the song within the chorus, which she absolutely belts out in a voice that I can only describe as being both beautiful and fragile—the sound of someone who is beyond a breaking point—the thing that caught my attention almost immediately is the way Diaz begins naming locations, doing so with an air of mystery, or at least is partially cloaking them until she reveals the song’s intention. And there is something, albeit briefly, unsettling about the way this list tumbles out of her mouth, because I had no clue where the song was heading.
“I could be sittin’ on the M train, goin’ back to Brooklyn,” she begins. “I could be crossin’ a street somewhere and not lookin.’” And it’s that line right there—the evocative danger of crossing a street without looking both directions for oncoming traffic—that made me think this list of locations, and this song, was going to be much, much darker.
Diaz is intoxicated at a party—one moment, laughing; the next, not.
She’s wandering the aisles of a 24 hour grocery store at three in the morning.
“Crying in Public,” is not that dark, but it is still inherently dark—a kind of viscerally truthful melancholy that she reveals in a bit of songwriting legerdemain. “I don’t want to be crying in public,” Diaz sings, confessing that all of the locations she has rattled off are the places that she has, in fact, found herself crying in public.
“I am strong, and it’s stronger than I am right now.”
Part of the compelling backstory, or narrative, you will discover about Diaz is that History of A Feeling is her first album in roughly eight years—it is her first album after signing a deal with the iconic imprint Anti-, and a reintroduction of sorts as a singer and songwriter, but it is her fifth full-length since she launched her recording career in 2007 with the now obscure and difficult to track down Skin and Bone. She issued two albums in 2012, Plastic Moon and We Threw Our Hearts in The Fire, with Phantom following in 2014.
And a bulk of that material came as a surprise to me, based on the instrumentation and arranging Diaz has chosen for her songs on History of A Feeling—simply because those previous releases lean far more heavily into a shimmering, highly textured adult contemporary pop sound.
And that might explain why, when she wasn’t recording her own material, Diaz worked as a songwriter for others, including country “crossover” Miranda Lambert, and Ke$ha, who recorded a version of “Resentment” on last year’s High Road.
Part of the compelling backstory, or narrative, you will discover about Diaz if you read literally anything published about History of A Feeling, like the aforementioned Pitchfork review, or a profile in Rolling Stone, is about the break up that inspired the songs on this album, what makes it so complicated, and why, really, the only way someone could probably even begin to work through it would be to make an album like this one.
In any press for the album, and the inspiration behind it, Diaz is both open, but also guarded enough not to reveal too much—her relationship ended, and shortly there after, her former partner began transitioning. “She didn’t come out until after we were no longer together,” Diaz says in her Rolling Stone profile. “So there was this aftershock effect of something that I experienced in a very small way, but became a big part of her story—a story that we no longer share together.”
If there is a through line that connects a majority of the songs on History of A Feeling, or at least a thesis statement, Diaz makes it in the album’s short opening song, “Rage,” which is the first time she pulls of a trick she deploys throughout—contrasting the timbre of her voice with just how harsh, or cutting her lyrics can be.
Over gently plucked, and admittedly somber sounding acoustic guitar strings, her voice delicately coasts along, kind of tumbling almost; and she doesn’t even ask, but rather, demands—“I wanna rage to erase everything and I’m not afraid.”
The album already had my attention within the first minute, based the give and take of the tension in the music, and the beautiful quality to her voice, but as “Rage” slowly continued into its second verse, I was more or less sold on History of A Feeling, and Diaz as a singer and songwriter simply because of the way she delivers this lyric: “Forgive and forget—fuck you, fuck that.”
If you go into History of A Feeling knowing about the events that lead to its creation, it is hard not to try to decipher which of its songs are just, simply, “break up songs,” and which songs are written as a result of Diaz’s former partner’s transition. The most obvious, and she even admits to it in the Rolling Stone piece, is “Woman in My Heart,” which arrives after the album’s halfway point. But as the album is still easing into itself, and Diaz, texturally speaking, is still playing with a simmering, unnerving tension and intimacy, “Man in Me,” is another that, more than likely, finds Diaz working through these complexities.
“Man in Me,” also, reveals what an evocative lyricist Diaz is—“Rage” is short, and to the point, and there are countless moments on this album where she really holds nothing back. But there is some extremely vague imagery she uses here—the entire first verse, really. “Do you imagine me differently, ‘cause when I met you swore you saw me differently. When you think I might be someone else, does that turn you on,” she asks in the song’s opening line. “I used to not get scared of shiny new things, until I saw you in there shower sitting on your knees,” which is one of the song’s most unsettling, ambiguous lines that she doesn’t deliver as a throw away, but just keeps pushing the narrative toward the chorus. “But when we turn off all the lights, we both get what we want,” she says, before arriving at the song’s central idea—“It’s all about who’s lips I was kissing,” she howls over a low, reverb soaked electric guitar. “The man in me, and the woman in you.”
The song, then, takes a darker turn in its second verse, and the imagery Diaz uses places you right there alongside her. “I’m not proud of kicking in your door,” she confesses. “Or screaming at you, ‘I don’t know you anymore.’ When I started staying it out loud, I couldn’t take it back.” The darkness of “Man in Me” then pivots into a palpable urgent desperation—“If it wasn’t real, why do I still feel it,” she exclaims while the electric guitar drops out for just a moment in favor of a low, atmospheric tone and the twinkling of piano keys. “Did we mean it at all—did we really mean it?”
From a structural standpoint, looking at how Diaz has arranged the songs and the kinds of elements included, History of A Feeling begins to open itself up a lot more the further along it gets—roughly around the halfway point, with the surprising and sometimes volatile “Think of Me.”
I had, of course, listened to History of A Feeling a few times passively, streaming it on Spotify, but when I listened without interruption, and within intention, one of the notes I wrote regarding “Think of Me” was, “A quiet kind of scathing.”
And I think, what I meant by that, is while it can be volatile in its lyricism, Diaz never actually lets the song get away from her, exercising restraint in the way it is arranged and executed.
There is a dizzying nature to “Think of Me,” from the moment it starts—underneath the electric guitar, Diaz isn’t so much breathlessly delivering her lyrics, but there is a frenetic momentum to all of, and as the song continues to build itself up, you are swept up in the swirling cacophony it creates, though Diaz is in complete control of the rising and falling of the song’s arranging.
In an album as confessional and as stark as History of A Feeling can be, “Think of Me” is one of the few moments when, even through her anger, Diaz is able to laugh, or at least reveal a slight sense of humor, because when faced with confronting someone unfaithful, what else can you do?
And, like “Resentment,” a Diaz-penned tune that another artist recorded previously, “Think of Me,” while about a break up, is not about the break up—the one that inspired History of A Feeling. Originally recorded by Kelsey Byrne, who performs under the moniker VÉRITÉ, “Think of Me” was co-written by Byrne, Diaz, and Konrad Snyder.
“I can play normal and you can pretend that I don’t know where you go—I know where you go,” Diaz sings, in a quiet, scathing way before hitting the punchline of the song in the chorus: “I hope you fuck her with your eyes closed and think of me,” which, based on the tender instrumentation and somber lyricism of the album, overall, up until that point, it comes as a surprise. “Put the shame off with some Benzos,” she continues, allowing herself to loosen the grip she has over the song’s control. “Swallow the feeling while you walk home and think of me always—think of me, think of me always,” she says, as a mantra that tries to find the balance between humor and rage.
If the swirling cacophony of “Think of Me” is still crafted with the line between tension and release in mind, “Woman in My Heart,” the song that most directly addresses the complexities of the relationship with her former partner, is where that line is blurred, and Diaz more or less lets go, giving into the visceral need for release.
And at first, it doesn’t seem like that is the direction the song is going to take with its lo-fi inspired opening, with Diaz’s voice and guitar sounding very, very raw, before her band comes tumbling in with an unrelenting, frenetic energy—absolutely pummeling work on the drums from Sarab Singh, who contributes percussion throughout the album, alongside an electrified, bluesy, twangy guitar continue to push the momentum forward as Diaz’s voice rises to a beautiful, terrifying howl, using it as a vessel for her anguish—“I’m still pulling out your love,” she commands in the song’s bridge. “Little pieces coming up.”
“Woman in My Heart” isn’t mean spirited, though the two lines that make up the chorus are difficult to hear, and certainly were a difficult thing for for Diaz to work through—“Now the man I love is gone and there’s a woman in my heart.”
In History of A Feeling’s final song, “Do it Now,” there is no real resolution, just what is a final plea that, for better or for worse, goes unanswered as the album concludes. “If you’re gonna hurt me, do it now…If you’re gonna love me, do it now.”
Before that, though, Diaz is able to find what resolve she is able to with both the titular track, as well as “New Person, Old Place.”
“History of A Feeling” is among the most gently, and sparsely arranged songs on the album, with Diaz only accompanied by the low strums of an electric guitar—the focus, then, being on the breathtaking double-tracked vocals, and Diaz’s pensive, reflective lyricism.
“I don’t know where I started, but I know where I stand,” she sings in the song’s opening line, as a bit of a declaration within a song that walks the line between moving forward, and not so much reliving the past, but being uncertain what to do with difficult or traumatic parts of it. “And when I walk away, I take you as I’m leaving—I’m still livin’ in the history of a feeling.”
“I don’t see you anymore but I see you in the mirror,” Diaz continues. “I only hear our voice when I know that you’re not here. And I know love’s not a lie, but I have a hard time believing…,” she sings before uttering the titular phrase again.
What little resolve there is in the song, though, resides within a grey area—the space that forms between what has already occurred, and what lies ahead, with the implication being there is no right or wrong choice w/r/t which space you might find yourself in—that you have to meet yourself, and show up for yourself, wherever you are in that moment.
Having spent a bulk of her career working as a songwriter for others, one of the things that is pretty astounding about History of A Feeling is the way Diaz is able to balance the personal or confessional nature of her lyrics, while still keeping the idea of accessibility in mind. There aren’t any, like, straightforward “pop” songs on here—the groove she slides into on the deprecating “Nervous” is pretty close though—but even if these aren’t pop songs, she still keeps song structurer, listenability, and melody in mind.
“New Person, Old Place,” the album’s penultimate track, perhaps burns or simmers the slowest of the set—built around a steady, but slower tempo, Diaz gives herself the space to really unpack and work through as much as she can within a four minute constraint. And if “Woman in My Heart” is among the most unabashed in its honesty, “New Person” is the most brutal in how effacing and reflective Diaz is with herself.
“I used to stay up on the off chance that you might call me back,” she begins, allowing her voice to coast along the rhythm behind her and the dramatic sweeping of a cello underneath. “I used to go shopping for pain—I’d go through pictures, it’s all I had. I’d sift through through our memories and live there even when I wasn’t sad.” Then, the surprising turn—“I used to, but now I don’t do that.”
The conceit of “New Person, Old Place,” is that “what used to hurt doesn’t work anymore,” as Diaz sings in the song’s chorus, and if “History of A Feeling” is about the difficulties in balancing how much time you spend ruminating on the past, knowing you should probably be thinking about the future—“New Person” is about that to, in a way, through through a funhouse mirror, focusing on what happens when there is growth and there is an awareness of needing to move forward.
The song, honest and effacing, is also devastating in its depictions of codependency and empathy—“I used to take all of your shit and carry it on my back,” Diaz reflects the song’s final verse. “I’d leave what I needed behind to make room for whatever you had. I believed that I had to be strong just for you, so you wouldn’t crack….I used to, but now I don’t do that.”
Shameful might be too strong of a word, but I would surmise there is a stigma around the idea of an adult crying in public—that after a certain age, one is expected to be in better control of those kind of feelings, and that you should be able to bottle them up until they go away, which is obviously incredibly healthy, or until you are able to find a private moment.
The train, a party, crossing the street, a grocery store during the middle of the night—these are not places one should open up that kind of torrent of emotion. Wait until you are alone, back at home.
If you must, sitting in your car in a parking lot, hoping nobody else is around to see you.
If you must, in the single stall bathroom at work, muffling your sobs so the cavernous echo created doesn’t leak out through the door for your colleagues to possibly hear.
Not at a desk, while you aimlessly sift through paperwork, with the depression you are never able to outrun and the monotony and meaninglessness of your job overwhelming you.
Not in the garage, in your final moments of solace, before you have to pull it together, put your key in the lock, and enter the house.
Like so much of History of A Feeling, the very notion at the heart of “Crying in Public” is not presented as being right or wrong—it is simply presented as what happens when you give in to what you are desperately trying to hold back.
“I don’t want to be crying in public. But here I am, crying in public.”
It, much like “History of A Feeling,” is skeletal in its musical accompaniment, relying almost entirely on the powerhouse vocals from Diaz to keep the momentum of the song moving, albeit slowly, along. And she goes for it, as she should, on a song such as this—“I don’t want to be crying in public. But here I am crying in public. I am strong but it’s stronger than I am right now,” she wails unapologetically in the chorus, and in a song that is as human and personal as “Crying in Public” is lyrically, there’s also an honesty in the way she pushes her voice on those lines—she pushes it not to a place that is out of her vocal range, but there is something dissonant scraping up against the otherwise gorgeous nature of how she sounds—a small detail, but it’s one that lingers after the song is over, and well after the record has concluded.
History of A Feeling, as a whole, isn’t intended, I don’t think anyway, to be an exercise in contrasts, or really about duality, but it is a record that creates a number of juxtapositions throughout—at times, it is explosive and visceral musically, but predominantly in its unflinchingly honest, personal lyrics; and as volatile as Diaz is capable of pushing things within this collection of songs, the power and fragile beauty of her voice provides an absolutely fascinating contrast. Even as it falters slightly within the second act, it never cease to be a compelling, thoughtful album—impeccably and intimately co-produced by Diaz alongside Andrew Sarlo—Madi Diaz maybe hasn’t made an album that, in the end, provided the resolution she, perhaps, was hoping for; regardless, in telling her story, she’s crafted an accurate portrayal of the human condition, where, often, there is little, if any, resolve either.
1- It’s well documented that I really do not like children, and often do not know how to act around them. I’m convinced that most children born were an accident—and it is well documented that my wife is perpetually reminding me that some people actually want to have children. I don’t have to smile at anyone anymore (because I wear two masks all day at work—thanks rona!), but even before that, I am unable to think of a time when I was genuinely moved to smile at a child.
2- So this was too much of an aside to try and shoehorn into this review, especially so early on into it, but there’s this biography about Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley that I read a number of years ago, and something I remember from it was about how much money Columbia Records was sinking into Jeff Buckley’s debut, Grace, in terms of studio time and production costs, then marketing and promotion, et. al. One of the things the book mentions was the placement of the CD in prominent displays in stores, like, Best Buy, I want to say. I think that the idea of labels pumping money into something like this is just fascinating, and so I wonder if there is someone at Anti- that is in charge of pushing History of A Feeling onto homepage suggested listens, or whatever, at Spotify.
3- So this piece is, anecdotally speaking, a lot shorter and less elaborate and complicated than other things I have written this year, but, hey, I get it—I get it that all the things I write are probably too long. And that a lot of people probably don’t make it through until the end (thank you, if you do) but, like, I feel like taking a more thoughtful and detailed approach to music writing is better than something that is less than 1,000 words that really don’t talk about the experience of listening to the album or what really makes it so compelling.
History of A Feeling is available now via Anti-.